Around the world, like the rolls of thunder from a massive electrical storm, comes revelation upon revelation of sexual abuse. This, years after it became clearly apparent to all that the church had a problem that it needed to deal with.
About the only sensible thing I've read from the church so far is the statement from Archbishop Robert Zollitsch in Germany acknowledging that the church put its own reputation ahead of the needs and rights of victims. That is the crux of this issue.
Allegations have surfaced that Joseph Ratzinger, whilst Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was ineffective and inappropriate in dealing with matters of sexual abuse by clergy in the US. Those allegations are of course unproven but, as the current Pope, Ratzinger has an obligation to allow those allegations to be properly tested.
However in response to those allegations, and more generally the abuse performed by US priests, the Vatican and supporters of the Pope have come up with a number of interesting strategies:
- The church has long claimed that the priests in question don't work for the Vatican therefore the Vatican is not responsible. If that is the case why is it also the case that those same priests can and are subject to excommunication by the Vatican when involved in matters of theological deviancy for instance? Why have those same priests not been excommunicated for matters of sexual abuse? How can the Pope be the ultimate authority as per catholic teaching and yet at the same time not responsible? This seems to me to be mere legal wrangling to avoid liability;
- In direct response to the allegations that Ratzinger was ineffective at dealing with abuse matters and a subsequent bid to have those matters tested in court, the Vatican has claimed immunity. They say that as head of State the Pope is not able to be subject to such actions. Sounds like Silvio Berlusconi's argument to me. It isn't a valid argument and indeed it stinks simply of a strategy to avoid having the question explored. It is neither honest nor just;
- The Pope's preacher, Raniero Cantalamessa, at an Easter service attended by the Pope, argued that the attacks on the Pope were similar to anti-semitism in that they sought to move from individual responsibility to collective guilt. Now prima facie that't a fair point, however it doesn't stand up. We are back to the same problem. At one moment the church seeks to make all clergy responsible to the Pope and yet to reject any notion of responsibility for their actions. Further, the point being raised is not only that the Pope is responsible for the actions of priests who are responsible to him (and that is an arguable point though not simple) but that if the Pope is shown to have, by act or omission, had involvement in the abuse then he is personally, not collectively responsible for his own actions. That allegation is, as I have already said, not proven however it is reasonable to raise it as a matter to be tested and it is not an argument of collective guilt. Cantalamessa is engaging in sophistry and using emotive images in his quest.
This problem is structural - the way the church is governed and organised has given rise to the circumstances which have fostered this abuse. Church doctrine must lead me to believe that the Pope is therefore responsible and able to act to resolve this unacceptable situation. That is quite separate to the allegations about his potential personal involvement - not in abuse so much as in its ineffective control.
Governments and police forces all over the world need to take aggressive action to root out the abusers and to ensure that the catholic church's doctrine and structure do not lead to a continuation of this abuse.
Put that another way: because the problem is structural the response must be structural. The catholic church cannot face that reality. However, any government that funds or supports catholic institutions is supporting institutions that are structurally favourable to the conduct of abuse. That is surely not acceptable public policy. The difficulty for governments is that, for instance, around 5 million Australians are baptised catholics - around 26% of the population. Catholics are a big voting force.
What is right is that governments actively pursue structural change in the catholic institutions that they fund. That is unfortunately highly unlikely.
In addition the catholic church needs to live up to its dogma and answer the questions about the Pope's actions or inactions honestly, quickly and publicly.